Noah Simblist: Failed States

Failed States

By Noah Simblist

Semigloss, 2013

As I write this, another American president is flying to Israel-Palestine to address a failed state of affairs. The Zionist project has failed to produce a Jewish democratic state and the Palestinian national project has also failed to produce anything more than a state in limbo – an archipelago of partial sovereignty. The first intifada failed, the second intifada failed, the Oslo Accords failed and when it comes to the United Nations, there is a long list of failed resolutions. In 1947 UN resolution 181 recommended a partition plan, dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish States – this resulted in a war that Israel calls a war of independence and Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe. After another war in 1967, UN Security Council resolution 242 condemned the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Israel still occupies the West Bank and Golan Heights and while unoccupied, Gaza exists in a state of siege, governed by Hamas, an international pariah. Most recently, in 2012, the Palestinian Authority failed in their bid for statehood recognition by the UN. To some degree these failures also point to the failure of the United Nations itself. They also have produced another failure - that of the nation state as a site for egalitarian freedoms.

What follows below is a look at the ideas of a German Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, as a means to understand how the failures of nationalism have produced the condition of the refugee and the possibility of pluralism. This is not just as a way to think about Israel-Palestine, but the problems that refugees face throughout the world.


Hannah Arendt was a refugee. This we know. The fact that she was Jewish in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich forced her to escape to France and then the US. In her essay “We Refugees” she notes that a refugee used to mean one who must seek refuge in another country other than one’s home because of an act committed or a political opinion held. But in her case, as in the case of many other Jews at this time, Arendt became a refugee because her identity, her very being, was the radical act committed.

It was the racist essentialism of Nazi policy that put Arendt in such a position and we might think that it would produce a reactionary response in her of equal essentialism. If Nazi policy took it as a given that she was a victim of their crimes then she might think that all Nazis and anyone who worked with or was complicit with their activities was and is essentially a criminal. Furthermore, this essentialism might produce an attitude that was even more ontological. All Nazis are evil and all Jews are good.

In 1963 Arendt covered the trial of Adolph Eichman in Jerusalem and offered another formulation. This journalistic work produced a book, which was famously subtitled “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Her argument was that Eichman was not inherently evil but was merely a bureaucrat doing his job. This was not meant to limit his culpability or defend him in any way. Rather, this argument was more chilling in its implications. Arendt implied that all of us, no matter what our familial, cultural or national roots, have the potential to become a mass murderer like Eichman. This position rejects the essentialism of Nazis being pure evil and also any supposition that Jews, homosexuals, communists or the Roma peoples that were exterminated were inherently victims. Instead, this position suggests that the entire process of victimhood and aggression was the horrible product of modernist industrialism gone haywire.


Hannah Arendt grappled with the double bind of the refugee. They were the Other in their homeland and cast out but then became the Other in their state of refuge as well. The problem with the refugee as an identity is that even in the country in which they seek refuge they risk being seen as inherently weak. The citizens of the host country might ask: “Why couldn’t they survive in their own country? There must be something wrong with them that makes them less capable than in our country.” Or worse, “They came to our country because it is better than theirs. There is something inherently better about our culture that produced a more enlightened set of circumstances to allow for human rights and a better economy to allow these refugees to find opportunity and flourish.” These attitudes echo a colonialist discourse of enlightenment and a fundamental ethnocentrism. They also echo the essentialism of pure good and evil that Arendt rejected. Arendt believed that Eichman’s critical error was believing that he could decide with whom to cohabit. She was arguing against this not only for Jews but also for any other “minority” or “other” within a majoritarian society. It is an argument for pluralism that not only resists the rejection of or discrimination against refugees. It also is an argument against the nation state on behalf of the stateless. It is an argument for pluralism.


When Arendt published her articles in the New Yorker about Eichman, she was immediately attacked for trivializing genocide. Her friend and colleague Gershom Scholem called her “heartless.” Arendt agreed that Eichman should be tried and she agreed with the decision that he was found guilty and put to death. But she did not agree with the ideological performance that the trial became under the guise of justice. Many wanted her to see this trial as a trial not only of one Nazi but all of Nazism, as the logical consequence of centuries of European anti-Semitism. But Arendt believed that a trial should be about justice and reason. She also was skeptical of a nation, however new, that would condemn an entire people, based on the trial of one man.

One notion integral to the founding of the state of Israel is Jewish victimhood. In the Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt counters this myth of victimhood with the statement that the state of Israel might have been the resolution of the Jewish question for Europe but it also produced a new category of refugees - 800,000 Palestinians. Thus a nation that was assembling itself around the condemnation of European Anti-Semitism and the vengeance against it through the trial, conviction and sentencing of Eichman, was setting itself up as a righteous victim, a victim that was rebranding itself as strong and vengeful.


Edward Said has suggested that Jews and Palestinians share a common history of exile and that this might be the start of a point of common language. Similarly, Hannah Arendt saw the statelessness that she herself experienced in WWII as the starting point of a critique of nationalism itself. Arendt never meant to equate the two experiences but instead wanted to open them up to thinking about more universal questions of human rights.

Thus far, one might think that the question of the refugee for Arendt was sited in Europe or the Middle East. But there is a third site, in New York that opens up to the rest of the world – the United Nations. The questions of the nation state, refugees and human rights that immediately followed WWII are the specter that Arendt’s coverage of the Eichman trial awoke. These issues were supposedly addressed by the United Nations, which along with the State of Israel and Palestinian refugees, began in the late 1940s. In theory, the UN is the institution that transcends nationalist self-interest and offers a space for the stateless to have agency. But like each of its constituent members, the UN is made up of members with more or less power and is run by the Security Council, an organization within the organization that acts as an extension of the socio-economic power of its members. This is the failure of the United Nations today.

While the UN has been able to administer the refugees of places such as Palestine, Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda, Colombia or Myanmar, its General Assembly in New York has been the space for political theater that ends up doing little more than reify the positions of those in power. The anthropologist Michel Agier has suggested that the UN has become a bureaucracy that specializes in managing exclusion rather than seeking to undo the conditions of the powerless. Agier has proposed that we live at a time in the world with so many wars that a new condition of statelessness is emerging “at the margins of the world.” In the process, there is a new kind of shared humanity that is predicated on statelessness. This phenomenon has been picked up on by Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan who have proposed the camp as a site for a new politics, evacuating the position of the victim and replacing it with a more empowered possibility of pluralism.

Would it be possible to take up this challenge? Can we replace the epicenter of the UN from the Security Council to the UN Relief and Works Agency? Can we shift the paradigm of transnational dialog from the capital to the camp? What is the relationship between hard and soft power in this transformation? In 2011 UNESCO voted to admit Palestine into its organization. Is it possible for culture to be a point of leverage?


Hannah Arendt’s activities ranged from Europe to New York to the Middle East but her work was not limited to these sites or their particular populations. When she wrote a critique of the nation state, she was advocating for the stateless and for pluralism around the world. It was this very call for pluralism, clearly posing a threat to Jewish nationalism and a homogeneous autocratic form of Zionism, that enraged her detractors in 1963. There is a similar anger toward those that question the policies of the Israeli State today.

On Feb 7, 2013 Brooklyn College’s Political Science department scheduled an event featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to discus the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. This event has been criticized as being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic by Alan Dershowitz, the New York Daily News, and others. It is one in a long line of accusations that link anti Israeli sentiments with anti-Semitism and thus Jewishness and Zionism. Judith Butler, who is a Jewish woman like Arendt, has recently been very active in the Palestinian solidarity movement and has written extensively on de-linking Judaism and Zionism.

What can Arendt’s criticisms of Israel and the reaction that they garnered tell us about this contemporary example of a Jewish woman being attacked as anti-Semitic? What right does a member of the Jewish Diaspora have to criticize Israeli State policies? And finally what role does discourse have in shaping new positions that break out of the binary of one side or another? To limit this speech at the service of Israel would prove that the utopian egalitarian aims of Zionism have failed miserably - and Israel and Palestine have seen enough failure already.

Failed States.pdf